Felling the straw man

The problem is not with ministers’ foreign education but with their attitudes towards society

Written by Nandini Sundar | Updated: December 9, 2014 5:12 pm

MGNREGA-main

Having grown up on stories of Bunker Roy’s admirable work in Tilonia, I was distressed to read his article, ‘The barefoot government’ (IE, August 26). If this inconsistent, empirically flawed argument is any example of the kind of thinking he wants our educational system to encourage, there is something “dreadfully wrong” with his proposed reforms.

To begin with, he sets up a straw man to attack — the “foreign-returned degree-wallah” in the previous UPA government, whom he blames for all of India’s anti-poor policies, and in particular, for almost managing to “strangle the MGNREGA”. If he wanted to, why not just attack the troika of Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, instead of clothing it in an impossibly generalised argument? The most elementary reflection on the origins and formulation of the  MGNREGA would have shown the leading hand of not just the foreign-educated but foreign-born economist, Jean Dreze, as well as the role of foreign-born Sonia Gandhi in pushing it through. There are also any number of foreign-resident scholars like David Shulman and David Lelyveld, to name just two, who know Indian history, languages and culture much better than the Indian-born and Indian-educated “graduates who roam the streets of small towns and cities by the thousands, … practice the worst forms of cruelty, slavery and crimes against humanity”. This latter description covers not just past ministers but includes ministers of this government who have been accused of enabling communal carnage. So, the issue then is not where one is born or where one is educated, but what attitude one has towards the rest of society. It is true that the way certain disciplines like economics and political science are headed, with their over reliance on number crunching and faith in the free market, they are likely to produce people ignorant of society (not just Indian society but any society). However, to blame the disciplines would itself be too broad a generalisation. There is a struggle that needs to be waged over what should be taught and how, and this needs to be fought not just from outside but within the academy. Education does need to be responsive to society — not only to its immediate need for jobs, but also to its long-term need for critical thinking, innovation and beauty. Whole-scale uneducated attacks that do not recognise this knife-edge function hardly help.

Roy’s diatribe against vice-chancellors and his description of a “Class 12-pass woman minister speaking as an equal to almost 120 heavily qualified, on paper, vice chancellors” is foolish. Smriti Irani may be equal in gender terms, and more than equal in power, but is certainly not equal in terms of qualification. Is Roy saying that we should abolish all educational qualification? Why then is it relevant whether the minister even passed class 12? When I see how hard some of our students struggle, their diligence in learning a difficult academic language, the financial problems they suffer —  and not just for the paper qualification but because they genuinely believe in getting and generating knowledge — I refuse to accept that degrees don’t matter. Our highly educated former HRD ministers may not have done much for the education sector, but to then argue that it was because of their degrees is a straightforward logical fallacy. A degree may not be sufficient for being HRD minister, but it certainly helps to have one.

The more fundamental question that Roy raises, of course, is how to transform not just our education system but also our governance system to learn from the rural poor. But neither this government nor the previous one seriously cares about this issue. I am sick and tired of bureaucrats, industrialists and others saying that “people like me” — anthropologists — want to keep adivasis in museum cages. Does wanting to harness their ecological knowledge and preserve their languages while providing them the best possible education in formal biotechnology and world history sound like wanting to keep anyone in a museum? Does asking for peace and not war, for the acknowledgment and celebration of diversity sound like a policy for fossilisation? It is those who want to displace villagers, destroy the environment and introduce uniformity in language and religion — thus extinguishing the very bases of deep local knowledge — who want to keep adivasis backward. Neither Narendra Modi nor Irani, and certainly not Dina Nath Batra, has any vision on this issue. And for Roy to claim otherwise betrays his own moral and intellectual fatigue.

The writer is professor of sociology at Delhi University

For all the latest India News, download Indian Express App now

  1. A
    Arvind
    Aug 29, 2014 at 11:34 am
    I agree with the professor. Mr. Roy seems to like paper degrees for politicians. It is not necessary that a politician to have a degree. He/she is not an educator. Their primary role is to represent the people of India, their values and culture in the field of education and resolve their problems with regard to imbibing different types of education. Mr. Roy is perhaps a colonial babu immersed in his colonial degree seeking angst.
    Reply
    1. B
      Brijkhanna
      Aug 29, 2014 at 6:02 pm
      Problem is not Minister with degrees from Harvard, Camridge, MIT, PRincton, OXFORD but the mind set and correct direction. Asif Ali Zardari appointed highly qualified of Foreign Unversity bt his direction was 10% cut to ZARDARI COFFER. Here too directiion was from Madam Sonia and her cronies. The second tenure of UPA2 was directionless and of intentional leniency towards corruption for them, their cronies and partners. It was a regime which believed in " HARAM KA MAAL HAI LOOT SAKEY JITNA LOOT, PHIR PACCHEY PACHHTAWO , JAB HUKUMAT JAYEGI CHHOOT"
      Reply
      1. B
        B.D.SINGH
        Aug 29, 2014 at 2:43 pm
        MGNREGA etc are doles. These schemes neither create ets nor empower people. Because the people who introduced these schemes did not know power of common people. If there is no imagination, copy China who turned the vast potion into a cheap labor force and overshadowed the world economy. But people doing these things were not educated in foreign universities. They knew problems of China and tackled it. Unless we will make our huge potion our ets, we can not progress.
        Reply
        1. D
          Deepak Bellur
          Aug 30, 2014 at 1:04 am
          Another Straw Man argument from the Author herself:I quote "Smriti Irani may be equal in gender terms, and more than equal in power, but is certainly not equal in terms of qualification. Is Roy saying that we should abolish all educational qualification? Why then is it relevant whether the minister even ped cl 12?"Roy may not be saying abolish all education, but citing instances where it was not very useful. By the way, I've not read Roy's article.
          Reply
          1. Y
            Yeshwant Pande
            Aug 29, 2014 at 4:50 pm
            One persons atude towards society in general is sum of all his experience and not merely education. For example all people witnessed killing during parion on both sides of boundary is same, only hatred towards each other. Education had no role. Similarly atude towards poor. All those who struggled to reach pinnacle of their careers did not belong to families of wealthy and rich, hence an expectation from poor to work harder instead of depending on free lunch. Remember the famous statement " There are no free lunches " by MMS. So although they did try to distribute money and food through a number of scheme, efforts were half hearted.j
            Reply
            1. J
              JFK
              Aug 30, 2014 at 1:44 am
              Umm..what is the point of this article?? It goes from here to there and everywhere and in the end blames Modi!! A better line of enquiry about Bunker Roy's article would have been - "does the foreign degree distort the perception these guys should be having" And lastly yes we should preserve "deep" local knowledge of adivasis but they can't be living in stone age where the rest of the world zooms by!! Wake up and smell the coffee!!
              Reply
              1. L
                Logic
                Aug 30, 2014 at 6:51 am
                Although I appreciate her sentiment, Purush is right. There is not data in the entire paragraph to conclude that 'it helps to have a degree'. Instead if she said 'it does not hurt to have a degree', then she would have been accurate!
                Reply
                1. P
                  Pawan
                  Aug 29, 2014 at 11:58 pm
                  The professor's article is written for unknown audience. I can see her point reacting to some article of some Mr Roy, but her knowledge of Indian references as well. She seems to be unaware of how much people of on the street knows about Indian Society including Adivasis. Just a typical jumping jack article with similar unknown (to Indian society at large) references with no direction, just a coffee house of India type of throwing names and words in English. In summary making a big deal of a typical and common way of expression of many in India for ever.
                  Reply
                  1. P
                    Purush
                    Aug 29, 2014 at 7:36 am
                    The lady presents an inherently contradictory argument - "Our highly educated former HRD ministers may not have done much for the education sector, but to then argue that it was because of their degrees is a straightforward logical fallacy. A degree may not be sufficient for being HRD minister, but it certainly helps to have one".She says that lack of action of earlier HRD Ministers may not be due to degrees. True. But then degrees have not guranteed action either as we have seen. So then how can she argue in the next line that having a degree helps one as HRD Minister.
                    Reply
                    1. V
                      venky
                      Aug 29, 2014 at 6:02 am
                      I think all the the conclusions drawn are based upon very flawed arguments. Education should not be considered as a factor at all, but rather an understanding of the poor should be the essential factor. In this respect many like Mr. Roy have a misconception that pursuing good or foreign education is incongruous with the understanding of the poor. However this a flawed logic as pointed out by the author here, but people who have the understanding of the poor must be there at the top. That's why it is the politician who rules not the bureaucrat. It implies the importance of a democracy. India in its current phase is torn between the need of development and higher GDP and the poverty crisis. The author with such an ease condemns Modi etc, keeping the balance is the challenge and I think Modi is addressing that only, though not everything can be implemented all the time with 100% efficiency.
                      Reply
                      1. V
                        Vindafrana
                        Aug 29, 2014 at 5:54 pm
                        Bunker Roy's article is poorly written and makes for an easy target.But Ms. Sundar's response merits a refutation as welldian people, by and large have put in power at the Center, a Party that represented change over the status quo, and my opinion, the systematic strangulation of the authentic Indian values and voice for the last 50 years, largely by parochial atudes of senior officialdom and the political elite.Ms. Irani's lack of a formal degree is a non-issue. Did Ms. Indira hi have one? Did the country stop valuing education because she did not have one? No-one followed Bapu or Pt. Nehru or Sardar Patel or Jinnah because they were accomplished lawyers, and bar-at-laws from London (except Patel). It was for their ideals and messages. What they said and did, connected with people.Ms. Sundar's comment about Adivasis is over the top. What do the Adivasis want? Are they not represented in decision making?What exactly is 'celebration of diversity'? Who is the celebrant? To what end? '...Wanting to provide?...' - the government? I smell patronage here. Whose money is being used to provide what for whom?There is a new government in place. Too early to judge it. But it is certainly a refreshingly different direction.
                        Reply
                        1. S
                          Sunil
                          Aug 29, 2014 at 11:21 am
                          A gentle reminder to Mr. Roy that hi and Nehru were 'foreign educated.' As were Savarkar and S P Mukherjee. As Prof. Sundar says in her article, it does not matter where a person was born or where (s)he was educated, what matters is what atude they bring to the situation at hand.Of Max Mueller, a foreign born and educated scholar, Vivekananda has said, "And what love he bears towards India! I wish I had a hundredth part of that love for my own motherland! Endued with an extraordinary, and at the same time intensely active mind, he has lived and moved in the world of Indian thought for fifty years or more, and watched the sharp interchange of light and shade in the interminable forest of Sanskrit literature with deep interest and heartfelt love, till they have all sunk into his very soul and coloured his w being."Thats all!
                          Reply
                          1. S
                            Sonali Chandna
                            Aug 29, 2014 at 8:14 am
                            Bull ... Bugger Off ...
                            Reply
                            1. S
                              sk
                              Sep 1, 2014 at 1:36 pm
                              For the importance of education, you still need data! I am at loss to understand why the w drama and so much expenses about education and especially about higher education?Like mere secondary education produces only ghettos of call centers, uneducated (read without degrees) will give short-sighted and narrow minded people becoming tools in the hand of agenda-runners.
                              Reply
                              1. S
                                sk
                                Aug 29, 2014 at 3:06 pm
                                Its not her. Its you, who is misreading the point. Do yourself a favor- read the same sentence 5 times. Than after 10 minutes again 5 times. The light will come!
                                Reply
                                1. G
                                  Guest
                                  Aug 29, 2014 at 1:43 pm
                                  Article not understood. Nor did I understand Mr. Bunker Roy's article!!!!!!
                                  Reply
                                  1. T
                                    Thomas George
                                    Aug 29, 2014 at 2:39 pm
                                    An educated man fails to do something. uming that it is not his enthusiasm or intent to solve the issue, and that his education was the problem is a logical fallacy. It does not follow.Now, let us take two men who want to do the same thing. It is more likely that the educated man will succeed because of the increased knowledge base at his disposal.
                                    Reply
                                    1. V
                                      Vish
                                      Aug 29, 2014 at 8:16 am
                                      With confused professors like these no wonder India's education system is a mess.
                                      Reply
                                      1. V
                                        Vivek Thacker
                                        Aug 29, 2014 at 7:36 am
                                        A good reply to an intellectually very lazy article from Bunker Roy!
                                        Reply
                                        1. Load More Comments